Best Places to Live 2009

Our annual guide to Hub real estate spotlights the lucky towns emerging from the market crash with their values intact. Plus: The smart buys for those still shopping, and sanity-saving tips for those staying put.

How to Hunker Down

Your starter home is looking like a stay-put home. (Or the empty next is no longer yielding golden eggs.) Our tips for making do, constructively.

Illustration by Oliver Munday

LOVE THE ONE YOU’RE WITH If you’ve been counting the days (years?) until you pack up and leave for Fancytown, chances are you’ve been furiously avoiding putting down roots. Stop that. Getting over commitment issues is the first step toward making the extended interim period bearable. Consider joining the town council, the PTA, or your neighborhood association. You’ll be surprised how much playing a proactive role restores the sense of control sapped by postponed plans. Think of it as practice for when you finally make the move to that gated community of your dreams. (Besides: There’s always a chance you’ll find contentment in a place you never expected.)

DO THE WORK NOW… Three years ago, you needed to be adding on a wing to get contractors to return a call. Now they’re hungry for work and willing to negotiate. You may even get a better result. “Back in the boom times, it was much harder to get a good contractor,” says Dorchester-based contractor Mike Ahern. “An economy like this weeds out the less stable ones.” For extra savings, begin projects in the off-season.

…AND PICK THE RIGHT FIXES The goal isn’t to make a masterpiece, but to update reasonably. Visible amenities trump snazzy cabinet organizers, says Terri Tobin-Young of Copperwood Real Estate. If you’re doing a kitchen, don’t skimp on the countertop (go for stone) or cabinets (they should be solid wood). One more note: In this post-luxury age, pools don’t scream “personal oasis” so much as “maintenance cost.”

GO GREEN Blown-in insulation, an energy-efficient hot-water heater, and low-VOC paint? They’re as sexy as that gurgling master bathtub used to be. “The live-in-it-three-years-and-flip mentality is gone,” says Gregory Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. And with that, he adds, “people want to see efficiency and longevity.”

CUT THE GRASS, FOR PETE’S SAKE Your future prospective buyer may already live nearby, or drive by your place often. Earn a reputation as the block’s shaggy dog, and it’ll be that much harder to receive top dollar when the time comes to sell, no matter what last-minute sprucing up you do.

KEEP THE CHANGE Start saving now. The era of “No income, no pulse, no problem” lending is kaput. The standard these days is 10 percent down, and while options remain for putting 3 or 5 percent down, those rarely come without private mortgage insurance, which can tack on hundreds more a month to your payments (see “Yes, You Really Can Still Get $$$“). If you’re going to be sticking around for a while, there’s no time like the present to put aside a little nest egg—for, you know, your next nest. —Katherine Bowers